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One Night with the Captain
Unforgettable Nights (Book 6)
What happens on the ship stays…in your heart.
Emma McBride thought she was finally on the marriage track, but when her long-term boyfriend dumps her, she’s devastated. Convinced by a gal pal to take a cruise to Mexico, Emma’s hoping the sea, sand and solitude will mend her too-trusting heart. A shipboard affair is definitely not on her agenda. Especially not with a handsome Army captain who’ll be redeploying after the cruise. But the nights are long, and the man is caring and easy to talk to, and Emma finds herself trusting him more than she’d planned to. Can she enjoy the passion of the moment without falling in love?
Army Captain Zach Lawrence used his much-needed shore leave to meet up with an online lady friend for a 5-day cruise. When she’s a no-show, he feels like a fool, but he’s not going to waste his R&R on might-have-beens. The refreshing candor of a quiet brunette catches his attention. And his heart. But she’s looking for a permanent relationship, and even if he wanted to, Zach can’t do permanent. Although he’s beginning to care for Emma more than he’d ever planned to, when the cruise is over, he has to walk away. Or does he?
A strident horn blast almost blew Emma McBride out of an unfamiliar bed.
What the--? She sat straight up, her heart hammering. Six more short blasts assaulted her ears. Followed by one long, loud siren.
Squinting, she scanned the small, windowless room. Stateroom. Ship. Cruise vacation. Emma’s heartbeat slowed. She must have dozed off waiting for Callie to return to the cabin.
A male voice crackled through the loudspeaker. “This is Captain Willis speaking. At sixteen hundred, please meet at your assembly stations for a mandatory safety drill.”
Four o’clock. Fifteen minutes from now. And she had no idea where she was supposed to go.
As the captain droned on, Emma shoved her feet into her hot pink beaded flips flops and foraged through the closet for the life jackets. Throwing hers on haphazardly, she flung the cabin door open. A cluster of people headed toward the rear of the boat. Snapping a buckle into the first hook that clicked, she followed the crowd.
Down two flights of stairs, a crew member checked her ship card and pointed her toward her station. Emma’s life vest hung off one shoulder and seemed to have gotten tangled behind her, snarled in its own belts and ties. Not until she got on deck did she notice she was the only non-crew member wearing one.
“Cabin number?” An unsmiling man with a clipboard checked Emma’s name off his list. Shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun, she looked around for her cabin mate, but no way could she find Callie through the sea of vacationers standing five deep. Many of them older couples but plenty were young, good-looking men. Despite the November temperatures and the breezes blowing off San Diego harbor, most guests were already dressed in casual beachwear.
While the safety specialist rattled off his spiel, Emma tried to untangle herself from her life jacket, her frustrated tugging only tightening her web.
“Need some help?” A guy wearing denim cut-off shorts and a bright yellow muscle shirt appeared in front of her, shoulders as broad and straight as the Continental Shelf. His square jaw and strong chin fixed his face in a serious expression, but his chocolate brown eyes, a perfect match to his short brown hair, twinkled with amusement.
Emma swallowed. “I seem to have gotten into this strait-jacket the wrong way.”
“You wouldn’t be the first.” The muscled guy chuckled. Raising a questioning brow, he held his hands out in front of him until she nodded her tacit permission. Then as the dozen people surrounding them stared, he set to work untwisting the ties. “I’m guessing you didn’t hear the Captain’s announcement that you weren’t required to bring your life vest.”
“I must have missed that part.” How could she have fallen into such a dazed sleep just an hour after boarding? Emma fought the flush rising to her cheeks. The guy was cute. And he smelled nice, like a piney wood.
“First cruise?” As he untangled a loop, his fingers brushed against her collar bone.
Emma’s breathing hitched. “I guess it’s obvious.” She focused her gaze on his strong shoulders. A woman could almost build a home there.
“Mine too, actually.” A slight drawl warmed his voice. His hands slid over her back as he unsnapped the botched up buckle, allowing Emma to finally escape from the jacket.
“Thanks.” She took a step back, hoping to melt into the crowd.
But the safety instructor had reached the life jacket demonstration part of the training. “I believe we have a pair of volunteers.” The instructor waved for Emma and her rescuer to come forward.
Her face as orange as her life jacket, Emma kept her eyes on the ground while Helpful Hunk followed the crew member’s instructions and demonstrated the proper way to don a life jacket. Standing so close behind her his breath teased the back of her neck, he wrapped his arms around her. Emma sucked in her gut as he fastened the chest straps across her breasts.
“And then you take the long strap hanging behind you, tuck it between your legs, and fasten it to the front buckle,” the instructor explained.
Although she’d barely paid attention to the first set of instructions, Emma grabbed the hanging strap, slipped it forward between her legs, and fastened it.
“Nicely done,” Helpful Hunk said, a mischievous gleam in his eye. His broad smile nearly took Emma’s breath away.
When the instructor finally dismissed the crowd, Emma hurriedly unsnapped the buckles and stepped out of the jacket. “Thanks again for your help,” she murmured to the guy, and then dashed into the dispersing crowd, eager to escape to her cabin.
On the first flight of steps, someone behind her stepped on the heel of her flip flop. The shoe went one direction, and Emma’s foot went the other. The flip flop slid down to a lower step, but with the crowd pushing her forward, Emma couldn’t even stop, let alone stoop to retrieve it.
With one bare foot, she trudged upwards with a frustrated sigh. Why had she thought a fun, relaxing cruise would make her forget her troubles? Only day one of this vacation and she was not only clueless, but shoeless.
* * *
Zach Lawrence stood on his veranda and sipped his Jim Beam and coke as the last rays of the sun disappeared over the horizon. The dark waves lapping at the sides of the boat sounded almost close enough to touch. Settling himself at the unsteady table and chair, he breathed in the exhilarating salt sea air, watching the sun dip and die like slow motion photography. A fantastic view and no one to share it with.
If he’d known he was going to be alone, he never would have sprung for a cabin with a balcony. Of course, if he’d known he was going to be alone, he probably wouldn’t have booked this cruise at all. Discount or not.
Turning away from the railing, he studied the small but efficient cabin. The king sized bed with its incredibly soft mattress was a luxurious contrast to the Army cots he was used to. A damned shame to sleep in it alone. He sighed. There had to be some available women on this cruise ship, but most of those he’d encountered so far were either coupled up or over sixty. The one intriguing exception hadn’t seemed interested in him. She was so not interested, in fact, that she’d scurried away into the crowd before he could even catch her name.
He examined the pink sandal on his dresser. The glue was dry and holding. When he’d discovered the shoe at the bottom of the stairs, the strap torn away from the sole, he’d scooped it up in hopes of returning it to the woman who’d recently worn it. But his mystery Cinderella had already disappeared. So he’d repaired it, in case he ran into her again. Not that likely with four thousand guests on this ship, but the laws of attraction had a way of working for Zach.
He placed the shoe on the floor in the back of his closet, where it would probably stay. The lady was intriguing, sure, but he’d be damned if he’d knock on every door in this huge hotel on rudders looking for the maiden who’d lost her glass—er, leather slipper.
His stomach growled. Zach downed his drink and headed upstairs to the buffet. He’d grab a quick bite and then check out the casino. Maybe he could round up a few more employees of Uncle Sam for a poker game. If he could win back some of the money he’d shelled out for this cruise, at least this vacation wouldn’t be a total bust.